When the Hindustan Times was launched in Mumbai five years ago, it debuted with a cracking story. Its reporters got a disc featuring conversations the police had taped of Salman Khan. His tone was more loutish than menacing, but he did threaten Aishwarya Rai (then his girlfriend) with the muscle of Abu Salem. He wanted her to attend one of Salem's shows, and she was reluctant, hence the threat. The story was entertaining, especially for its raunchy bits in which Salman describes his sexual prowess (mostly untrue; I have it on the authority of another of his ex-girlfriends) and how he treats his actresses. For this reason it was national news for an entire week.
The BJP thought this issue important enough to demand action in the Maharashtra assembly, and the government said it would investigate. The police then admitted to having tapped Salman's phone. They thought a particular number was being used to dial calls to Salem, and that number turned out to be Salman's. Of the many conversations on the disc, however, none featured Salem or for that matter any other thug. There was Salman drunk and abusive and generally unchivalrous, but little actual presence of the underworld. If Salem was absent, why had Salman's conversations been made public? Had his conversations with Salem been recorded and then deleted? Had they never happened at all? We do not know.
The police said they could not even identify the conversations as the ones they had taped, and claimed to have destroyed all their tapes years earlier. The forensics lab said the voices on the disc were not the actor's. And so that story was, inevitably, forgotten when the next such story surfaced.
Five years before that, additional sessions judge JW Singh went to trial in Mumbai after two years in jail. I knew Singh, having often attended his court as a reporter. An obese man with an enormous turban, he sat in judgement on several narcotics cases. These were difficult to get bail in, because of a particularly harsh clause Parliament legislated under the influence of Sunil Dutt. But judge Singh had developed a reputation, and I was not surprised when he was charged with corruption and then ran away, before being caught and tried.
The police had recorded him talking to Chhota Shakeel, one of Dawood Ibrahim's men. The two men in the conversation were fixing cases. Singh needed Shakeel to recover R40 lakh he was owed by a crook running a chit fund (it's quite astonishing that a judge should have been so stupid). Shakeel needed Singh to get his men sprung on bail. The conversations demonstrated quite clearly what was happening, and two men accused of murder were bailed out by Singh, as the conversations predicted he would. Surely this was evidence enough. But it wasn't, and judge Singh walked away.
The court trying him found that the police hadn't used blank cassette tapes to record the conversations. The recording wasn't competent and there were other voices in the background. The police had not followed procedure and had violated the law in going about the recording arbitrarily. In fact, that court felt that the police may not even have recorded the conversations at all, and that the tapes may have been handed over to them by someone else. By whom? We do not know.
A few years before this, The Indian Express ran a series of reports called the ‘Tata Tapes'. They were about how Tata Tea may have paid extortion money to Ulfa extremists in Assam to allow them to run their plantations in that state. The paper carried transcripts of conversations recorded after Nusli Wadia's telephone was tapped. They featured industrialists Keshub Mahindra and Ratan Tata, Tata Tea's RK Krishna Kumar and former soldier Sam Manekshaw. The Tatas were doing what any company should do — protect their employees — because the State could not. However, the conversations were seen by many as an act of anti-nationalism. This wasn't so much because of the actual actions of the people taped as their conversations which, because they were private and unguarded, lent themselves to being sensational in cold print.
The real story was why Nusli Wadia's phone had been tapped and who had done this. The State denied any role. The Indian Express reporter who broke the story, Ritu Sarin, said she had promised her source (apparently after being made to place her hand on her child's head) that she would never reveal his or her name. Who was it? Was it someone in the police or the government? Was it a corporate enemy, like Wadia's old enemy Reliance? What was the motive behind getting the story published? We do not know.
And now the latest round of leaked tapes features stars from business, politics and journalism talking to the fixer Niira Radia.
Who recorded these conversations? We know this because home secretary GK Pillai says it was his department. Why was the home ministry taping Radia? Pillai says it was because of suspicions of tax evasion. This is astonishing, but not unusual here. In India, the State insists it cannot police effectively unless it is increasingly intrusive. But this isn't true of civilised States. No European nation taps the phones of citizens suspected of not paying taxes. Their solution is increasing competence and efficiency in the State; our solution is always to give the State more power. But this isn't really a solution.
The sensational nature of the Radia conversations must not throw us off the real issue the tapes have thrown up. Corruption is India is caused by a cultural lack of morality. Where there is opportunity, there will likely be corruption. This cannot be resolved through intrusion. In fact, such intrusion encourages corruption. Here's how. Arbitrary spying on citizens gives individuals in the state power over them. The deeper the penetration of the state, the more power in the hands of government individuals, the more opportunity to be corrupt.
Pillai, the most powerful bureaucrat in India, does not even know who leaked the tapes he's in charge of. He says he has not even heard the tapes. Then who is in control of this material? Has someone suppressed some conversations and released others? Did someone pay off an official to leak them? We do not know.
Like Salman talking rubbish, a lot of the material on the Radia tapes can be discarded as the work of loudmouths impressing other loudmouths. Journalists have an exaggerated sense of their power, and we can safely dismiss the idea that a politician will appoint someone or affect a change in policy because a journalist weighed in on the matter.
The real revelation is that the State is up to no good. The newspaper Mint reported that the government records 5,000 phone conversations a day. That's 18 lakh a year. It has a legitimate cause to this only when it comes to saving people's lives from violence and terrorism. But it chooses to do it so arbitrarily, as we have seen in the case of Salman Khan, and so often, as we see with Radia, that they falter when they must do it competently, as they should have done in the case of judge Singh.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media. The views expressed by the author are personal.